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Leading article: What Whitehall could learn from Washington


Government departments, as we report today, are experiencing an unusually high turnover of staff.

One striking result is that a majority of ministers have been in their current jobs longer than their most senior civil servants. Both in principle and in practice, this need not necessarily be a bad thing. A perennial complaint from outsiders who have dealings with the Civil Service, particularly with its rarefied upper echelons, is that while it may be world-class in many areas, it is uniquely adept at devising ways of protecting its own interests. If the accelerated turnover in the upper ranks means that new thinking can rise faster, the departure of some senior staff need not be too much mourned.

Other factors may also be in play. Some departments are always happier than others, and some ministers more popular than others. That staff turnover is especially high at Education, where Michael Gove is Secretary of State, and at Communities and Local Government, where Eric Pickles is in charge, may mean that these two politicians are "difficult" characters. But it could also mean that they are especially determined or committed to policies demanding new approaches, and that they have alienated those staff who do not see the future the same way.

Every government that aspires to use its parliamentary majority to bring about change complains sooner or later about delaying by civil servants. Sometimes there are clashes. As it is the minister, not the civil servant, that has the political mandate, a parting of the ways may make sense. If dissenters cannot live with the policy, which is what civil servants are paid to do, then it is better for them to leave rather than sabotage it from within.

While a historically high turnover of civil servants should not, of itself, be a cause for panic, however, and could even be healthy, it is no reason for complacency either. For what at least some of the recent departures suggest is that highly competent and well qualified individuals are choosing to jump ship for perhaps less contentious, and almost certainly better remunerated, employment in the private sector.

In the relatively recent past, the Civil Service has tried to make itself competitive as an employer by incorporating certain private-sector mechanisms, notably performance bonuses. In at least one recent case, that of the head of the Student Loans Company, a special tax dispensation was negotiated – which is now, quite rightly, to be withdrawn.

But the dilemma remains: how to attract and retain expertise that is also in demand elsewhere, while not inflating salaries across the Civil Service, where pay is set centrally by length of service and grade? One solution would be to make pay more flexible – for scarce skills – than the current rigid grade structure allows. Another, no less politically difficult at a time when so many people have their pay frozen or cut, would be to raise pay significantly at the top, bringing the Civil Service into line with the recent trend for top professional pay – of doctors, lawyers, headteachers and others – to race away, leaving the less qualified far behind.

Neither remedy would be well received, except by the potential beneficiaries. A more imaginative solution would be to encourage more fluidity between the Civil Service and elsewhere, so that a spell in Whitehall would be treated, as its equivalent in the US government, as a period of public service, where professionals accepted that the financial rewards will be lower. However ministers choose to respond, if at all, they could do worse than seize this rare opportunity to introduce fresh blood into a service whose signal defect remains its institutional aversion to change.